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Zionism’s New Boss

Under rookie politician Naftali Bennett, religious Zionism is finally becoming Israel’s political mainstream

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Naftali Bennett, head of the Habayit Hayehudi Party, the Jewish Home party, sits in his car during a campaign tour on Dec. 26, 2012 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Uriel Sinai//Getty Images)

The Six Day War fundamentally changed the game, emboldening Kook’s followers and believers in religious Zionism. Under the tutelage of Kook’s son Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, a new generation of young religious Zionists came to see their mission as once again settling the newly liberated lands. It was as much, perhaps, a personal awakening as it was a theological one: The 1967 generation, the sons and daughters of religious Zionism’s original guard, looked at their parents—milquetoast, many of them foreign-born, nearly all of them political moderates—and boasted that they would do better. They would rebuild the Jewish state east of the Green Line.

Thus, the settler movement was born—and the religious Zionist movement was split in two. On the one hand, the older generation continued to understand itself in terms of the old balancing act between the dictates of the Torah and the ethos of the state, a challenge that doomed them to play second fiddle on either side of the church-state divide. On the other, the new generation was awash in Messianic zeal. In 1967, for example, one of its most incandescent leaders, Hanan Porat, wrote with characteristic ecstasy: “Here I am—for the priesthood, for the kingdom, to kill, to be killed. O Lord, here I am. … This is how I understand the true meaning of the word pioneer.”

As the older generation died off, the younger generation began its ascent. Theoretically, there was nothing standing in its way: The majority of Israelis, even those who bitterly opposed the settlements and saw them as an obstacle to peace, couldn’t help but think of men like Porat—pioneering, bold, and idealistic—as the heirs apparent to Zionism’s true spirit. As the Jewish state matured, as it strove for normalcy and foreign brands and international acceptance, secular Zionism seemed archaic; what, after all, was the mission of a movement to establish a national homeland for the Jews in the State of Israel decades after such a home was already established? Secular Israelis looked at the nation’s founding ideology and could think of little use for it anymore, given that it had already accomplished its goal. Religious Zionists, on the other hand, were still going strong; they were rooted in ancient and immutable values, and their project, building settlements and reclaiming all of the land that God promised, was only getting started. Whether or not they saw the settlers as their secret id, successive Israeli administrations, even those on the other end of the political divide, continued to support them generously.

Plus, the religious Zionist movement had other projects apart from building settlements. In 1990, for example, only 2.5 percent of all IDF infantry officers were religious; by 2007, that number had skyrocketed to 31.4 percent, and it continues to grow. Religious Zionist activists set up newspapers, film schools, radio stations, and other public institutions, but they’d never been especially good at accumulating electoral power. Last election, in 2009, the religious Zionist votes were split between the Likud, the National Union, and Habayit Hayehudi. The former two, the movements’ main parties, received a combined total of seven seats in the Knesset, making the movement as politically marginal as ever.

That’s when Naftali Bennett stepped in.

***

Bennett is in possession of considerable talents, but his main asset is his charisma. It’s not the luster of the veteran politician, the kind of authoritarian aura Ehud Barak, say, strongly projects. Nor is it the elusive sort of pat sincerity that Bill Clinton has so finely crafted. Bennett’s mode of getting his point across—which I had occasion to witness when he visited Tablet Magazine earlier last year—is by coming across as an equal, a smart friend or an older brother who will never let his intelligence outshine his compassion. He listens, and when he speaks he sounds not as if he’s trying to sell you on his viewpoint but as if he’s eager to save you the embarrassment of being misinformed. It’s the sort of genial but steely leadership posture forged in infantry battalions or high-tech start-ups or any other unit that depends on its commander’s ability to convince his small band of followers of the sanctity of the goal ahead.

Bennett has been practicing this mode of leadership his entire life. He began his military career in Sayeret Matkal, the same commando unit that trained Netanyahu and Barak, before moving to another elite unit where he so much embodied the presiding spirit that he was called on to pen the unit’s new hymn. After his service, he received a law degree from the Hebrew University and, in 1999, founded the anti-fraud software company Cyota. The company struggled for a few years, but Bennett kept it alive long enough to see it through: In 2005, it sold to a much larger corporation for $145 million, making Bennett a very wealthy man.

His money bought him the freedom to dabble in politics, first as Netanyahu’s aide and then as the leader of the settler movement. But politics were a much wider, and much muddier, field than the self-contained environments to which Bennett was accustomed, and his style, in the early days in the public arena, could often be brusque.In September 2010, for example, Bennett, then the head of the Yesha Council, the settlers’ umbrella organization, agreed to a televised debate with Ahmed Tibi, the most prominent Israeli-Arab member of Knesset. Tibi is chubby, bespectacled, and quick witted, and he wasted little time calling Bennett and his fellow settlers “colonialists” and “usurpers.” “Ahmed Tibi,” Bennett said in response, “I’ll say it loud and clear: This land was ours long before Islam was even created.” He made a few statements along these lines, and then, just to make sure his point was clear, he thundered: “I’ll say it again. This land is ours. The land of Israel belongs to the Jews, long before you discovered the holy Quran. So, do me a favor: It’s ours.” The last word, in Bennett’s diction, seemed to have 16 syllables. Tibi, livid, tried to say something, and Bennett interrupted. Tibi urged Bennett to shut up; then, in the heat of discussion, he told Bennett that he considered him, a settler, to be like “a tumor that had to be removed.” Bennett fired back quickly. “When you were still climbing trees,” he said, “we had here a Jewish state.”

The incident generated little attention. The following morning, Walla, a prominent Israeli news site, ran a small article titled “Does the Yesha Council believe that Arabs climb on trees?” It was a dog-bites-man story: Here was Bennett, another hotheaded settler, another zealot, speaking bombastically. To the extent that the press reported on Bennett before the spring of 2012, most stories about him read like this. Some noted that he had served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. Others, that he was the son of Jim and Myrna, Americans who had left San Francisco in 1967 and settled in Haifa. But these were tidbits; the main story was that Bennett, despite all the trimmings, was still a settler ideologue, and most of his public appearances, like the shouting match with Tibi, seemed to confirm that characterization.

And then came the change.

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PhillipNagle says:

The truth is that the Israeli left has been such a failure when in power that they no longer present a viable alternative. As for Mr. Bennet, if we have learned nothing else from WW II, it was made clear that just following orders is not excuse for immoral behavior.

wishnitz says:

The problem with Liel Leibowitz is that most of what he writes is just plain wrong. His description of Naftali Bennett may or may not be true- his description of religious zionism is certainly untrue. It is not true that religious zionism “was born as a footnote, survived by hanging on to the cotttails of its seculat benefactors”. Has Liel ever heard of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalisher? or the “Netziv’ (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Jehuda Berlin)? Towering Orthodox personalites that predated ,not only religious zionism ,but Herzl, for heaven’s sake, by decades and encouraged the return to israel? It is absolutely a travesty to affirm (as Liel does) that ” According to the Talmud, attempts to return to the Promised Land before the divinely appointed time are striclty prohibited.Any attempt to settle the land of Israel was seen as an inapporiate attempt to hasten the coming of the Messiah.Zionims, most religious Jews believed, violated this stricture”. Liel is delusional. This paragraph comes straight out of the website of Neturai Karta, the most extreme ultra-orthodox and anti-zionist segment of Jewry in the world, and who have been discredited by even other ultra-orthodox jews for their pro-Palestinian and pro-iranian antics. Has Liel ever heard of the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, of the GRA, of the rebbes of Gur, all of them moving to israel and settling there centuries before Herzl and the zionist movement? Liel quotes a saying by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1899. This is, again, a quotation that comes directly from the website of Neturei Karta and has long ago been superseeded by events and by his own successor , the Lubavitcher that we all know for the past sixty years, whowas the staunchest proponent of not giving back an inch of historic Israel.
Liel presents a caricature of traditional religious zionism and thereby forfeits the right to give us any kind of logical analysis of the modern religious zionist movement, who is very much in line with its history..

It’s incorrect a) to say that the Talmud definitively says pretty much anything and b) certainly to say that it forbids return to the land of Israel; though that is one interpretation of Ketubot 111a. However, there have been many other interpretations including the Ramban, who made aliyah 950 years ago.

nyesq1 says:

The rise of Naftali Bennett has more to do with true pride and love of Israel than religion per se. Genuine love which leaves no room for cynicism. Its about people rejecting the Woody Allen diaspora Jew who “deconstructs” everything – if you hate your identity, criticize and attempt to undermine it (regardless of merit) you are progressive. heterosexual. Bennett overwhelming resume – Top elite unit, lawyer, high tech maven, Yesha Council and Chief of Staff for Netanyahu. You cannot accuse him of being anachronistic….. He is fully integrated in both the Modern and Jewish worlds (his wife, actually, happens to be secular. I myself am agnostic and largely non practicing, yet believe that it’s important to create space for Jewish culture (Yiddish, folklore, morality) and let it thrive. Being pro-Israel doesn’t mean being anti-something else.
The point here is not that you have to be “religious” to admire Bennett. All you have to do is have the normal instinct to be part of your group identity especially when there is much to be proud about.

You mistake propaganda for historical inquiry. The vast majority of Torah observant Jews in Eastern Europe, before WWII, opposed political Zionism. The dominant organizations within the observant community were the Agudat Yisrael & Machzikei HaDas (Belzer Hassidut), both actively opposed political Zionism, with The Agudah reaching a modus vivendi (not an endorsement) with the leadership of the nascent State of Israel on the eve of its independence. The Mizrachi was a distant third place organization within the Orthodox community. The descendants of those disciples of the GRA who lived in Jerusalem were among the most fervent in opposition to political Zionistm (and many still are). All of Liel Leibowitz’s contentions which you find objectionable are groundrd in historical facts. Liel is not delusional, he just understands that there is a difference between history and ideology. Your contentions would go down very well at a B’nai Akivah Shabbat, and they form an important ideological underpinning for those who wish to be both observant and Zionist, nevertheless they trotting out Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer as the ultimate reproach to Liel’s article is not serious. Rabbi Kalischer’s influence on the acceptance of political Zionism within the Orthodox community was marginal (in terms of numbers).

It is not a matter of whether the Talmud actually prohibits a return to the Land of Israel or not; rather, Liel Leibowitz is describing how this passage in the Talmud was taught by most of the leaders of pre-WWII Eastern Europen Orthodoxy and how this teaching was apprehended by the Orthodox masses, at the time.

wishnitz says:

Dear Sir,
I do not confuse propaganda with historical inquiry.If there is any propaganda, it is in the other side. It is true that a large part of Orthodox jewry opposed political Zionism in the early days of the Zionist campaign. However, please re-read Liel Leibowitz’s words. He talks about settling and living in Israel before the arrival of the Messiah. His words reflect the most extreme anti-israel views, espoused today only by a remnant of the Neturei Karta. His words come straight out of their website. I know, I read it !
And to quote a saying of the old Lubavticher rebbe, said in 1899, is straight out of the same old, defunct playbook. Why not quote the Rebbe that we all know, whose presence dominated the second half of the twentieh centuey-and who opposesd giving back an inch of israel?
You know as well as I do, that present day Orthodox jewry (not only the religious zionists) lives and builds in israel and is actively involved in its political process. You don’t have to be a religious zionist to accept the fact of modern day israel. I quoted Rav Kalischer to demonstrate that the impetus to return to Israel started out well before Herzl (see the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov and the GRA). My point was simply that leil Lebowitrz totally misrepresented orthodox Judaism in all its aspects and certainly religious zionsim who, incidentally,has always polled much higher that the Orthodox parties in israel,

wishnitz says:

You are wrong. No plausible Orthodox leader ,save one or two, interpreted that talmudical passage in this way. Only in recent years has this become populaized by the late Satmarer rebbe.

Ron Lewenberg says:

Should we really care that a few ghetto Jews, after praying for their mythical “good Czar”, would make a fetish of a Roman-imposed Rabbinic ruling at odds wit the Torah?

Redwood509 says:

If he does not deliver on the agenda of the fractured orthodox voters they will split again, because he represents mainly the Ashkenazim with a Yarmulka, this is more or less, what it is about and there are numerous issues in conflict with other more or less Orthodox streams, with the Israeli center, and the Left which is totally mystified, how the Orthodox are more powerful than they used to be. The bottom line, if Bibi gives in to their blackmail (there is no nicer way to describe it), they will be right there for more votes, if they get less, his leadership could crumble. Previously, many wunderkinds came on the political scene, some with gravitas (Prof. Y. Yadin, 1977) or or former Eichman body snatcher, Raffi Eithan) all formed a “party” which vanished. Even Kadima (which means forward, but is more backward these days)that came with 28 seats in 2009, presently can barely cobble 5 secure spots. Bennet is one of a kind, he can also be history after a grind upward, not different to Livni’s fate as another Israeli has been who could no tick back regardless of her standing in the West as “one of us”!

Great article. Just a quick correction: the Habayit Hayehudi TV ad features not Uri Ariel but Uri Orbach.

Papa493 says:

“The truth is that the Israeli left has been such a failure when in power….”

1948-77 a failure? “The truth” is your truth.

PhillipNagle says:

Yes, a failure! If we look at the economic progress under capitalism versus socialism in Israel (as well as most countries that have wisely made the switch) one can come to no other conclusion.

Papa493 says:

The left was busy establishing the nation, fighting victorious wars and laying a foundation for the current economy.

PhillipNagle says:

They weren’t laying the foundation for the current economy they stifling any real economic growth. It’s just like the left, they and their ideas get bounced, then they take credit for a growing free enterprise economy.

Papa493 says:

And Israelis’ longevity is due to the nation’s universal healthcare and mandatory insurance. The system also keeps healthcare costs lower, which helps the economy.

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Zionism’s New Boss

Under rookie politician Naftali Bennett, religious Zionism is finally becoming Israel’s political mainstream